Sun. May 26th, 2024

Have you ever gazed up towards the cosmos and wondered if there is something else alive out there? Enrico Fermi, an Italian-American astrophysicist, certainly did. While attending a luncheon with other scientists, Fermi asked a profound yet simple question: where are they? His question was later coined as Fermi’s paradox. It is in fact astonishing, almost paradoxical that we see no traces of alien life in our universe. Some studies estimate that our galaxy alone is swarmed with hundreds of millions of planets suitable for harboring life. The observable universe is teeming with billions of other galaxies, each stocked with millions, if not billions, of its own habitable planets. Why is it that we don’t see even the faintest evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life?

There should be some evidence of intelligent life out there. Theoretically, simple life would have emerged on habitable exoplanets as it did on Earth, and over time they would develop intelligence and eventually superintelligence. To date, we are the only intelligent species that we know of (that is one species out of billions that have ever existed on Earth), and we have only existed for about 200,000 years (a blink of an eye in cosmological terms). In the span of 100 years, we went from the horse and buggy in the early 1800s to building the first operable liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. 40 years later, we witnessed humanity’s most glorious moment when we tread the Moon’s surface, turning what was once absurd and mythological into reality. Today, we have invented the smartphone, which has more processing power than the colossal Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo 11 crew. In the near future, we may achieve machine learning, which philosopher Nick Bostrom describes as “the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.” You can see how technological development occurs at a very rapid pace. Just imagine what cosmologically distant civilizations could achieve in a mere few hundred or thousand years.

So, why haven’t we seen any traces of alien existence? Several theories have been proposed attempting to explain this paradox. One explanation is that we have overestimated the presence of intelligent life in our universe. Out of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year existence, we humans have only been roaming the planet for roughly 200,000 years. For the better part of those 200,000 years, we were living in an uncivilized condition, simply trying to survive and reproduce (and it was only in the past few hundred years that we embarked on our scientific journey). What this suggests is that intelligent life is extraordinarily rare. The truth is, evolution does not march inexorably towards intelligent life. The current state of our species is the result of random genetic mixing and fortuitous environmental changes. For most of Earth’s history, life consisted of simple prokaryotic organisms. The fact that humans are where they are today is nothing short of a miracle. Intelligence is not favored by evolution (which I will get to later).

Another explanation is that there are intelligent beings out there who are aware of our existence, but they are so advanced and so uninterested in us that they have evaded our quest to find them and made themselves hidden from us. Just like we are so uninterested in ants, so much that we walk over them without any consideration for their safety, extraterrestrial beings may view us with the same curiosity that we view ants.

A third explanation is that space is simply too large and difficult to traverse. If you traveled continuously at the speed of light, it would take you around 100,000 years to go from one end of the Milky Way Galaxy to another, and that’s with light traveling at a rate of 670 million miles-per-hour. The fastest human-made object, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, travels at a modest rate of around 400,000 miles-per-hour. Even if there were advanced alien civilizations, it would be highly improbable that they have the machinery to reach us, let alone make that the goal of their space exploration.

There are several other hypothetical explanations for Fermi’s Paradox, but I want to hone in on one final theory due to its proximity to our species and its irony. Ernst Mayr, in a debate with Carl Sagan over funding for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), articulated that natural selection does not favor intelligence. Noam Chomsky, another intellectual giant, built on Mayr’s assertion and hypothesized that intelligence may in fact be a “lethal mutation,” and he offers this argument as a cautionary tale for our species. We are the only animal threatening the existence of life on Earth. It is not the bacteria, lions, gorillas or sharks that are emitting catastrophic levels of green-house gasses or inventing nuclear weapons; it’s us. What trait have we used to invent these destructive technologies? It’s the one that distinguishes us from the rest: our intelligence. Perhaps highly intelligent life did emerge on distant planets and went through a similar history as ours, but it ended up destroying itself via the highly destructive technologies it created. According to Chomsky, we are currently on course towards self-annihilation unless we avert our current practices regarding climate change and potential nuclear war.

We can all make changes to mitigate the stress on our planet, from using less energy in our daily lives to promoting nuclear disarmament. Most importantly, we need ideological and cultural restructuring towards these issues. Too many people are indifferent towards these issues. Both our planet and our species are special, rare and full of potential. We are the only ones who can decide if Mayr was correct or not.


Sameh Sharoud is a third-year Psychology major with a minor in Biology.

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